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Hod is G-dPlaymaker: My Autobiography, Glenn Hoddle with Jacob Steinberg (HarperCollins 2021)

The Wheel DealCyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier, Jon Day (Notting Hill Editions 2015)

Manc WancFrom Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, Paul Morley (Faber & Faber 2021)

Goyles, Goyles, Goyles…I, Gargoyle: Toxic True Tales of Feral Freaks, Wild-Eyed Weirdos and Kore Kounter-Kultural Kooks Who Insidiously Identify as Human Gargoyles…, edited by David Kerekes and Norman Nekrophile (Visceral Visions, forthcoming)

Sneaky McCreadyThe Deceiver, Frederick Forsyth (1991)

Shake’s PeerShakespeare, Bill Bryson (William Collins 2017)

Winged WordsThe Last Enemy, Richard Hillary (1942)

The Cult of Ult1312: Among the Ultras: A Journey with the World’s Most Extreme Fans, James Montague (Ebury Press 2021)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Hod is G-d

Playmaker: My Autobiography, Glenn Hoddle with Jacob Steinberg (HarperCollins 2021)

(This is a guest review by Dr Mordecai Stimbers)

I’ve idolized Glenn Hoddle – and been a proud and passionate Yid – ever since the long-ago day on which my late father took me to a FA Cup tie at White Hart Lane as a bar-mitzvah treat. But in the beginning it seemed much more of a treat for him than it did for me. I was a chubby, brace-faced and bookish nebbish with a squint and ripening crop of raw red pimples. I didn’t want to go to London and I didn’t want to see a team that was Dad’s passion, not mine. We had to get up very early to travel from Glasgow and I was almost asleep on my feet by the time we reached the ground. But the raw and pungent smells of the fast-food stalls, the even rawer and more pungent London accents that sounded on all sides, the sense of occasion and impending conflict brought me wide awake and I was ready to savour every second of the game by the time the two sides came out onto the pitch to a thunderous roar of acclaim.

And savour those seconds I did. There was a folkloric or even mythic resonance to the setting, as though I’d stepped through some mystagogic portal into a realm of legend. I was at White Hart Lane, after all, a name that seemed straight out of Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. Everything was primal, elemental, bright and clean and eye-stunning, as though freshly forged in the furnaces of creation. The gold of the sun, the gleaming white shirts of Spurs, the blazing red shirts of their opponents, the perfect globe of the ball whizzing to and fro on the vivid green of the pitch – it all struck at my senses as though I was witnessing not merely a football match but existence itself for the very first time. Even the raucous, profane chants and cajolements from the crowds seemed to acquire a choral or incantational quality, as though a congregation of denim-clad worshippers were hymning a ceremony performed by demi-gods or ranks of bright-eyed Cockney magicians were conjuring the spectacle into existence by sheer force of will and lung-power.

But no, that last bit wasn’t right. The only magician on show was that tall and commanding figure at the centre of everything on the pitch: Glenn Hoddle. He played a blinder from first whistle to last, scoring two goals of his own and setting up two more for lesser luminaries before converting a late penalty to send the crowd into a final delirium of delight. But even better than the goals, in some ways, were the silky skills he laid out in midfield, as though, at some deeper level than mere and mundane reality, he was using the ball to festoon the pitch with ribbons of rare and precious fabric, glittering, gold-specked, semi-transparent. When I closed my eyes on the journey home, I could see him playing still: the twists, the feints, the back-heels and clever little one-twos, the passes he seemed able to deliver with pin-point accuracy over any distance he chose. As I thought at the game and as his later manager Arsène Wenger so rightly said: he was a magician. And his magic won my heart then and for ever. I’d been to a few games in Glasgow, experienced the cauldron of a couple of Old Firm matches, and even toyed with the idea of becoming a Partick Thistle supporter. But all that faded like dew before the golden blast of the rising sun as a proud white cockerel crowed in a new day. Nothing now could compete with the magic of Glenn Hoddle and the glamour of the mighty Spurs.

My Dad was even more pleased with my conversion to the cause of Tottenham Hotspurs than he was with the result of the match. He was a Yid himself, like his father and grandfather before him, and had never allowed his birth and upbringing in far-off Glasgow to diminish his passion for the club. He didn’t get to many matches, but he followed Spurs avidly in every available medium from print to radio to TV. He’d tried to infect me with the white-and-blue virus too, but I’d resisted, not understanding why it mattered, not wanting to maintain a long-distance loyalty to a city I’d never visited and a team I’d never seen in the flesh. My mother was dubious too, uninterested in any kind of sport herself and never letting him take me to a Spurs game until that fateful bar-mitzvah treat. But now I’d been and seen and was converted. I had become the fourth generation of the Stimbers family to have blue-and-white pumping through his veins.

Dad had his own favourite players but he recognised the quality of Hoddle and, like me, sympathised with him instinctively as an outsider. Hoddle was too skilful for the rough-and-ready English game and never properly appreciated by too many both on the terraces and in the footballing hierarchy. In this book he mentions the accusations that he was a “luxury player” and recalls the derisive, explicitly misogynistic and homophobic nickname that some threw at him: Glenda. It was both unfair and untrue. He had to battle for the space to display his talent. The game was much more physical when he was at the peak of his career and his skills were never allowed to shine as brightly as they surely would have done in today’s game, where thuggery can’t snuff out artistry as it once so regularly and so depressingly did.

No-one knows all that better than Hoddle himself, as you’ll discover in this readable but insubstantial autobiography. It would have been easy for him to become bitter and resentful, but his much-mocked interest in spirituality does genuinely seem to have brought him peace of mind and the ability to forgive. Besides which, he wasn’t and isn’t a might-have-been, because he became one of the greats, recognized and acclaimed around the world as one of the most skilful players ever to electrify a crowd. He never won the league title that he and his fellow Yids have coveted for too many decades to contemplate, but he played a central role in two classic FA Cup victories and an early English triumph in the UEFA Cup, then won the French league with Monaco. As a manager, he did well at Swindon, less well at Chelsea and Spurs, but with a little more luck and a little more backing from his chairmen he might have brought silverware to one or both of those London giants. He might have won the World Cup with England too. You won’t find any great insights into his successes and near-misses here, but he does set the record straight on his departure from the England job. He was stitched up by a reporter, but says that he’s glad it happened now, because it taught him about the power of forgiveness.

I think he’s sincere, but if he isn’t, so what? All great men have their flaws and Hoddle is in my eyes – and the eyes of countless other Yids – the greatest player ever to don the famous white shirt of the mighty Spurs. The quality of this ghosted autobiography doesn’t match the quality of his football, but it will bring back some happy memories for Yids d’un certain âge all around the world. Plus, it has a good index. When I first took the book up I looked in that index under “Watford”, hoping to find Hoddle’s description of one of his best-ever goals: an outrageously swift-and-skilful turn-and-sublimely-lofted-chip that left both defenders and goalkeeper helpless. But there was no mention of the goal. In one way that was disappointing, in another it felt just right. Hoddle had talent to burn and lit up too many matches with too many outrageous pieces of skill to recall all of them here. This is Hod’s world – you and me, we’re just living in it.

Dr Mordecai Stimbers is the Manny T. Schwitzowitz Professor of Post-Structural Hermeneutics at the University of West Baltimore

The Wheel Deal

Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier, Jon Day (Notting Hill Editions 2015)

I’ve never read George R.R. Martin, but I like this quote by him: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” That applies to a world of sword and sorcery, but it also applies in this world. Film can show you what a life is like from the outside; books can tell you what a life is like from within. Reading Jon Day’s Homing (2019), you’ll learn what it’s like to be a pigeon-racer; reading his Cyclogeography, you’ll learn what it’s like to be a bicycle-courier:

When I became a bicycle courier I found that I loved cycling for my living. I loved the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city, flowing between stationary cars or weaving through lines of moving traffic. I loved the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement, the absence of office politics and cubicle-induced anxiety. I loved the blissful, annihilating exhaustion at the end of the day, the dead sleep haunted only by memories of the bike. – p. 3

A film could show you some of that, but it couldn’t tell you what it feels like from within. And here’s something that a film can’t show you at all:

You learn the secret smells of the city: summer’s burnt metallic tang; the sweetness of petrol; the earthy comfort of freshly laid tarmac. Some parts of London have their own smells, like olfactory postcodes. The Shisha bars on Edgeware Road haze the area with sweet smoke; the mineral tang of Billingsgate fish-market wafts over the Isle of Dogs. – p. 6

But Day was an aspiring academic as he rode his bike and, just as he does in Homing, he mixes literature, film and art into his tales of life on the road. So Cyclogeography is a map as well as a memoir: it maps the culture and philosophy of cycling, all the way from Flann O’Brien’s strange and disturbing novel The Third Policeman (1967) to Will Self’s short story “Waiting”, which sounds dull even in the description. But there’s more to cycling than cycling, as it were. The bike runs parallel with the car in more ways than one. Both bikes and cars are like blood-cells speeding along the veins and arteries and capillaries of London, partly autonomous, partly constrained by the anatomy of the city. Some cyclists acquire what taxi-drivers call the Knowledge, the intimate familiarity with London’s geography that allows you to navigate swiftly and surely from any point to any other. Frank, one of the controllers at the courier-firm Day worked for, had acquired his Knowledge like this:

He had been expelled from school at fourteen for stealing mopeds, he once told me, and spent his teenage years as a scholar of the city: joyriding cars and motorbikes down its alleyways and cul-de-sacs, learning every back road and aerial walkway, every park and passage and byway and rat-run. He used this mental armoury first to evade the police and later, more legitimately, as a taxi driver. – p. 39

Then Day adds this beautiful little Ballardian touch:

But after a few years on the road, he realised that he preferred his mental map of the city to the real thing, and so he retreated to the office to live in it at one remove, traversing London vicariously in his imagination.

Frank’s controllees still preferred the wheel deal: as Day says, “Most couriers are young, male, and slightly lost.” (p. 28) Or a lot lost, and glad to be so. Some are hiding from the police or not just riding but being ridden by drug-addiction or mental illness. It’s a dangerous and demanding job. Day loved it, then got out and wrote this short book. There’s a lot in it: free-wheeling and free association. Day is an academic now and in a particularly dangerous (but undemanding) field: EngLit. But he doesn’t write like a typical academic and there’s no ugly jargon or pretentious cultural theory, despite the appearance of Debord and Self. Writing should be like riding: smooth, well-balanced, following the contours of thought and reality with grace, efficiency and ease. That’s what Day has achieved in Cyclogeography.

Previously Pre-Posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Homing in the Gloaming – a review of Jon Day’s Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return (2019)

Manc Wanc

From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, Paul Morley (Faber & Faber 2021)

Always interesting, usually entertaining, often absurd, the late Mancunian DJ, TV star, entrepreneur, wannabe Svengali and arbiter elegantiarum Anthony H. Wilson (1950-2007) deserves a good biography. Alas, this isn’t it. Paul Morley is more of a writer and less of a pseud than he used to be, but he’s no Lytton Strachey. From Manchester with Love is a “fat volume” of biography rather like the ones Strachey condemned in Eminent Victorians (1918). Morley hasn’t met the “first duty of the biographer” – the “becoming brevity” that “excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant.”

Indeed, Morley sometimes seems to have excluded the significant more than the redundant. It was hard to keep track of when and where things were happening in Wilson’s life: the story tended to dissolve into a cloud of commentary and cod philosophy. Morley went to a lot of trouble assembling a set of quotations in Latin to head each chapter, but didn’t trouble himself to draw up a timeline or convey any strong sense of place and period. But it is true that Manchester has less of an identity and less certainty about itself than its great rival Liverpool. It’s also true that brevity is hard to achieve when you’re writing about Tony Wilson. He died at only 57, but he had met a lot of people and launched a lot of careers by then. Joy Division and New Order might not have been successful or lasted long without Factory Records.

And Factory Records wouldn’t have existed without Wilson, one of its founders and always its guiding spirit. But what did he actually do there, apart from talk, snort cocaine, talk some more, and fail to keep track of accounts? I’ve never been sure and From Manchester with Love didn’t enlighten me. And the bits about Factory are where any biographer of Wilson confronts a classic biographical dilemma: that of what to do when one’s subject is involved with people more important or more talented or both.

That obviously applies to musicians like Joy Division and New Order, whose records reached millions who had no idea who Tony Wilson was and never will have any idea. It also applies to Peter Saville, the designer at Factory Records, who was much more talented than Wilson and may have been much more important in Factory’s success. In fact, I’m still not sure what Wilson was talented at. He was an excellent poseur, yes, and he could talk up a storm, yes, but he didn’t compose or write or paint. Perhaps he could have said the same of himself as Oscar Wilde once said: “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”

And perhaps Morley reports him saying exactly that somewhere in this book. I don’t know, because I got bored, gave up reading properly, and looked at the index instead. That’s how I read about Wilson and another more important and talented figure: Morrissey. And Moz proves that Wilson wasn’t a sine qua non of success for musicians in Manchester. Inevitably, their paths crossed and “Wilson would claim that he imagined Morrissey would become ‘our Dostoevsky’, naturally fancying that Manchester should possess such a thing, a literary genius weaned on Cilla Black and Oscar Wilde.” (pg. 380) But the Smiths didn’t come out on Factory Records and Moz didn’t stay friendly with Wilson for long. When Wilson said that Moz “is the Jeanette Winterson of pop, a woman trapped inside a man’s body,” Moz responded with: “Tony Wilson is a man trapped inside a pig’s body; the day someone shoves Wilson into the boot of a car and drives his body to Saddleworth Moor, that is the day Manchester music will be revived.” (pg. 381)

Wilson’s reaction must have been to laugh. And not just at Morrissey’s hysteria and hyperbole. One of Wilson’s more endearing traits was that he didn’t mind criticism and didn’t take himself seriously even – or especially – when he was taking himself seriously. Here’s one of anecdotes about him that are scattered throughout this book and that are better and more interesting guides to Wilson’s life and psychology than the biography proper:

[…] I joined Granada Television in 1982 [and] at that point, all across Manchester, it lasted about two years, there was graffiti done in the same spray-can style, same font, same silver-grey colour. And it said, “Tony Wilson is a wanker.” Wherever you looked in the city centre, it was on every available flat surface! “Tony Wilson is a wanker.” You couldn’t miss it. It became part of the city. I hadn’t really spoken to him much before, and I asked him, straight out, “Don’t you mind? You can see it everywhere. Look out the window, you can see one of these messages right there.” He said, “Why should it bother me? Would it bother you?” I said, “Well, actually, if all over my home city it said everywhere, ‘Richard Madeley is a wanker,’ yeah, I think it might fuck me up a bit.” And he looks at me as if I was mad. And he said, “Well, it doesn’t bother me. Because I am.” I said, “You are?” He says, “Yeah. I am a wanker! So are you!”

I said, “Sorry?” He said, “Right. So you like being on telly. I know you do, because I’ve seen you.” Yes, I do. I couldn’t deny it. He says, “Well, that makes you a wanker. If you actually enjoy the process of putting yourself out there in public as if you have some sort of importance, you are a wanker, by definition. I love being on TV, therefore I am a wanker. I fucking love it! I fucking love being on telly! I’m a wanker! It’s fair comment,” he said, “and anyway, if you put yourself out there, people can say what they like. I don’t give a fuck, people can think I’m a wanker, great. I don’t care, because I am.” It was a masterclass really in not taking yourself too seriously. (Richard Madeley on Tony Wilson, pg. 132)

You can also thank the anecdotes for the story of the Wilson-obsessed stalker who kidnapped and nearly killed his wife and for the very good advice that Wilson gave his son Oliver: “The one thing that my dad promised me, made me promise on his death bed, the only thing was to not do cocaine.” (pg. 555) So the anecdotes, the Latin quotes and the index are the best things in From Manchester with Love. If Wilson gets another biographer, my hope is for less Morley and more Strachey.

Previously Pre-Posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Auto-Burgess – a proper look at Manchester in Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mocking Manning – a review of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918)

I, Gargoyle: Toxic True Tales of Fetid Freaks, Wild-Eyed Weirdos and Kore Kounter-Kultural Kooks Who Insidiously Identify as Human Gargoyles…, edited by David Kerekes and Norman Nekrophile (Visceral Visions, forthcoming)

Fine books. Feral books. Fetid books. Year on year – OMG, decade on decade – passionately putrid publisher Headpress has been incendarily issuing said itemry. But for me, as for many, many other keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community, the fetid flagship of the Headpress brand has always been sizzlingly seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture (1986).

That septic status quo may be about to change. ’Coz Headpress are preparing to incendiarily issue a book that may just be capable of steaming up alongside-of fetid flagship Killing for Culture and giving it a broadside that sends it straight to the bottom of the abjectional abyss. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and goyles: I am beyond excited to announce that later in 2022 Visceral Visions will be publishing an entire book devoted to the deeply disturbing – and corely counter-cultural – toxi-topic of fetid folk who insidiously identify as Human Gargoyles. As David Kerekes and Norman Nekrophile write in their introduction:

The symbolic resonance of Skywald’s “Saga of the Human Gargoyles” rings out loud and clear. And we ain’t here to deny in any way that an allegorical interpretation of the Saga can be made on a maximally coherent basis. Yes, we agree without demurral that the Human Gargoyle family of Edward Sartyros and Mina Sartyros and little Andrew Sartyros are enacting the Immigrant Experience and Outsider Experience, performatively proximating the minorities of all kinds, racial and cultural and sexual, who have pursued the American Dream – and been rewarded with marginalization, misunderstanding and mephitic mistreatment. Yes, yes, the Immigrant Community, the Otherized Outsider Community, the LGBTQIA+ Community, and many others, they can all see themselves reflected in Edward and Mina and Andrew.

But that isn’t what this book is corely concerned with or keyly campaigning to cover. We’ll be blunt and put our counter-cultural cards on the toxic table. We don’t want the allegory – we want the actuality. Many, many folk have read the Saga of the Human Gargoyles and thought “That’s like me.” That wasn’t enough for us. We wanna to hear from those who’ve read the Saga of the Human Gargoyles and thought “That is me!” Yeah, we wanna meet and mingle with the fetid freaks, wild-eyed weirdos and core counter-cultural kooks who wanted to be and were determined to be and actually thought themselves to be real Human Gargoyles. I, Gargoyle tells their toxic true tales. Enjoy! (© David Kerekes and Norman Nekrophile 2022)

Got that? OK, then here’s an esoterically exclusive extract of just ONE of the incendiarily idiosyncratic items you can expect to find within the passionately putrefactional pages of I, Gargoyle

(click for full-size image)

Sudden Glory Laughter— Sudden glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called LAUGHTER; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter at the defects of others is a signe of Pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper workes is, to help and free others from scorn; and compare themselves onely with the most able. (© David Kerekes and Norman Nekrophile 2022)

The Deceiver, Frederick Forsyth (1991)

I assume that Forsyth based the protagonist of this book on John Le Carré’s cunning spy-chief Smiley. But I can’t be sure, because John Le Carré is such a bad and pretentious writer that I’ve never managed to read any of his books. Forsyth is a bad writer too, but he writes what George Orwell called good-bad books – books that you can enjoy despite their flaws and infelicities.

And I did enjoy The Deceiver. But not enough to want to ever re-read it. That’s the true test of a good book for me. Will I want to re-read it in a year or two or three? For The Deceiver, the answer is a definite no. Forsyth is recycling his own plots and ideas, for a start. Not as badly as he did in Avenger (2003), which is a caricature or even a parody of The Day of the Jackal (1971), but not very well either. He still can’t bring characters to life and he’s still revealing more about his psychosexual proclivities than perhaps he realizes. Like Ian Fleming, he enjoys violence and torture; unlike Ian Fleming, he doesn’t write elegantly and doesn’t have much interest in nature.

No, Forsyth is interested in machines and mechanisms. All kinds of mechanisms, including those of power and conspiracy. The four long stories in this book describe how the cunning British spy-chief Sam McCready takes on and outwits the KGB, the IRA, the Libyans and the Cubans. There are twists in the tales, as in Forsyth’s short-story collection No Comebacks (1982), and you learn a lot about spy-craft and the history of the Cold War. You also meet a lot of characters, but they’re puppets for the plots, not people who live and breathe on the page. If you’ve never read Forsyth before, don’t start with this book: go to one (or all) of the three classic and clever thrillers that deservedly made him famous: The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Odessa File (1972) and The Dogs of War (1974).

Previously Pre-Posted on Papyrocentric Performativity…

Twists in the Tale – review of Forsyth’s short-story collection No Comebacks (1982)

Shakespeare, Bill Bryson (William Collins 2017)

The best introduction to Shakespeare I’ve ever read. Okay, it’s also the only introduction to Shakespeare I’ve ever read. I’ve never felt the magic of Shakespeare myself, you see, and although I know he’s a very important figure in literature it was only Bill Bryson’s name on the cover that prompted me to give this book a try. I think it would still be the best introduction to Shakespeare I’d ever read if I’d read a lot of them. Bryson is a good and enjoyable writer: relaxed, affable, enthusiastic, able to convey facts without fuss or folderol.

And it’s better that he’s an amateur scholar rather than the real thing. The real thing is not usually a good thing when it comes to the humanities. One of the reasons that I find EngLit a disgusting, despicable and deplorable subject is that academics in the field write so badly so often. Indeed, bad writing seems to be a core qualification for the job. And you get touches of that in this book when Bryson is quoting scholars of Shakespeare. There are a lot of them, because Shakespeare is probably the single biggest figure in the arts. But we don’t actually know much about him. As Bryson says: “he is at once the best known and least known of figures.”

In effect, this book is a Shake’s peer: we’re peering through swirling mists of history at the life of a world-historic genius who is often only half-visible and sometimes isn’t visible at all. This book is a guide to what we do know, what we may know, and what we could have known if misfortune hadn’t intervened. The Great Fire of London destroyed some crucial evidence, for example, and we’re not even sure that the portraits supposedly of Shakespeare are authentic. There are a lot of gaps in the story and scholars have been trying for centuries to fill them. As Bryson says: “It cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing – not a scrap, not a note – that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it.” Some scholars have tried to fill the whole of Shakespeare’s story with someone else: Bryson ends the book looking at the theories that Shakespeare’s plays were in fact written by Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or Mary Simpson, Countess of Pembroke, or “a syndicate of stellar talents”.

Bryson doesn’t think much of the theories, but he doesn’t write about them just because they’re entertaining and sometimes bonkers. Writing about Shakespeare’s life largely consists of writing about other people writing about Shakespeare’s life. Otherwise there’d be very little to say. And we might have had very little to say about Shakespeare’s texts too, because they might have gone the same way as most of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature: into oblivion. As Bryson says:

It cannot be over-emphasized how fortunate we are to have so many of Shakespeare’s works, for the usual condition of sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century plays is to be lost. Few manuscripts from any playwright survive, and even printed plays are missing more often than not. Of the approximately three thousand plays thought to have been staged in London from about the time of Shakespeare’s birth to the closure of the theatres by the Puritans in a coup of joylessness in 1642, 80 per cent known only by title. – “In Search of William Shakespeare”, pg. 18

So we’re fortunate. At least, people who like Shakespeare are. I’m not one of them, but I’d like to be and perhaps this book will help me to become one. Even if it doesn’t, it’s taught me more about a very important writer and a very interesting period of English history.

The Last Enemy, Richard Hillary (1942)

Somewhere in Borges’ Library of Babel there’s a version of The Last Enemy that’s as good as I hoped the version in our reality would be. Or so I’m consoling myself after a big literary disappointment. The cover of this Pan edition of the book was one of the best and most inviting I’d ever seen. And the blurb was one of the most compelling I’ve ever read:

Shot down and horribly burned during the Battle of Britain, the author began the long period of plastic surgery and slow convalescence during which he wrote this famous book.

Here in vivid words he tells of his experience in the turmoil of 1940 and, with passion and urgency, expresses the mood of all those young men of the “Lost Generation”.

The Last Enemy was published in 1942. As soon as Richard Hillary had recovered sufficiently to use his hands, he did not rest until he was allowed to return to operational flying. He was killed on active service on 7th January, 1943.

With a build-up like that, who wouldn’t want to try this book? Hillary was 20 years old and still at Oxford when war broke out. I hoped he’d prove to be a Nietzschean warrior-scholar or warrior-poet, quoting Aeschylus and Euclid in the original as he compared the Battle of Britain to the Trojan War and wrote about the most romantic and thrilling form of war: being a fighter-pilot. Well, he chose an excellent epigraph for the book – “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” Corinthians, xv, 26 – but he didn’t prove to be much of a writer. Or much of a Nietzschean warrior-scholar either. Yes, he calls the opening section of the book “Proem”, refers to Goethe and quotes Verlaine in the original as he describes dog-fighting with Messerschmidts, being badly burnt amid “a mass of flames” in the cockpit of his Spitfire, and parachuting from 10,000 feet into the English Channel, where he drifted for hours before being picked up.

The less good cover of an earlier edition of The Last Enemy

But after the Proem he writes about Oxford, says that he was one of the “more athletic undergraduates”, and confesses that “we radiated an atmosphere of alert Philistinism.” (Book One, ch. 1) It shows in his writing, which is mostly dull and cliched. I suppose I should have seen it coming. If he’d been an Oxonian æsthete and devotee of Roland Firbank, he would never have become a Spitfire pilot. He could still have been a good writer, though. Alas, he wasn’t. His words are winged in the wrong sense and this is not the classic that I hoped it would be and that some people have claimed it to be. If you want a true classic from the Second World War, try Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949). Williams’ The Tunnel (1951) is also much better. Richard Hillary was courageous and clever and fought back from horrible injury and died tragically young, but his book didn’t “embalm the poignant history of an intensely human spirit in the magical spices of words.”

Previously Pre-Posted on Papyrocentric Performativity

Escape and EssenceThe Wooden Horse (1949) by Eric Williams
Deep in the DarkThe Tunnel (1951) by Eric Williams

Elsewhere Other-Accessible

Richard Hillary — biography at Wikipedia

1312: Among the Ultras: A Journey with the World’s Most Extreme Fans, James Montague (Ebury Press 2021)

I used to think that “ultra” was the Italian word for “football hooligan”. I was wrong. But not completely wrong. Fighting is often an important part of being an ultra. Sometimes it’s the most important part. But some ultras aren’t violent and aren’t interested in fighting. Other ultras aren’t interested in football. It’s the buzz of the fighting and the choreography and the pyro and the singing that attracts them. Or the chance to make money from selling merchandise or tickets or drugs. In some countries, like Italy and Argentina, ultras have become criminal gangs.

But that fits, because being an outlaw is also part of being an ultra. The mysterious title of this book, 1312, is a numeric code for letters of the alphabet. 1312 = ACAB and ACAB = “All Coppers Are Bastards.” The two abbreviations, 1312 and ACAB, are now used by ultras all over the world, because whether or not they like fighting and whether or not they like football, ultras are united in hating the police. Well, almost united. There is really only one thing that all ultras have in common: they try to go beyond – ultra – the normal limits of fandom. And so criminal ultras are often involved in other extreme things, like neo-fascist politics. James Montague visits the Mussolini-loving Irriducibili (“Unyielding Ones”) of Lazio in Rome and allows them to speak. But he also visits ultras at the opposite end of the political spectrum, like the idealistic left-wingers of Atalanta, a team from Bergamo in northern Italy.

But while the Atalantini are idealistic, they also like fighting and have built themselves a fearsome reputation. Their team plays in black-and-blue and they do their best to leave fans of opposing teams sporting the same colors. They don’t share the infamous Italian taste for knives: it’s fists-and-boots only for the Atalantini. Elsewhere, in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, ultras have taken that body-parts-only violence to another level and organized a system of organized brawls between dozens or even hundreds of fighters. The two sides battle until everyone on one side is knocked out. In Russia, it’s called okolofutbola, meaning “around football”. It’s vicious, but it has rules: when an individual opponent is down and out, you stop kicking and punching. Those rules don’t exist in Indonesia, as James Montague discovers when he visits the country to investigate its newly emerged ultra scene. This is what he experiences “Somewhere on the Ah 152 Highway outside Bandung”:

When you believe you are about to die – truly believe that the end is upon you – your body changes. After the adrenaline of survival, and your options close, it becomes warm and soft, as if it is preparing to absorb impact. There is a light-headedness, like anaesthetic. You no longer feel the beat of your heart which, moments earlier, was thumping so hard you suspected you might cough it up. It’s now fluttering above you at an exponential frequency. – ch. 14, “Indonesia”, pg. 323

He was in a bus with fans of Persija from Jakarta when the bus broke down and fans of Persija’s rivals Persib Bandung caught up with it beside “a busy six-lane highway with traffic whizzing by at 100kph.” Persija weren’t even playing Persib, but neither set of fans lets the fixture-list get between them and their fighting. On this occasion: “The Persib fans weren’t holding clubs but machetes.” And so Montague thought he was going to die.

To learn how he got away, you’ll have to read the book. And it’s a good book, visiting many more countries and offering much more than, say, Tobias Jones’ Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football, which looks at ultras in only one country and mostly through fans of a small club in the far south. Admittedly, that one country both named and defined “ultra” for the rest of the world. But the ultra phenomenon is bigger than Italy now and some of its roots lie outside Italy in South America. Montague visits Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, then goes to Europe, Asia and America. Some ultras are attached to world-famous clubs, some to clubs I’d never heard of.

It’s a good mix, but I was disappointed that Montague didn’t get to Spain. It would have been good to hear more about Spanish ultras both at famous clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona and at obscure clubs like Osasuna and Real Betis. I wasn’t disappointed that he didn’t get to England. Ultras aren’t an English-speaking phenomenon, even though the symbols of classic English hooliganism have been taken up by modern ultras all over the world. You could say that those ultras are trying to combine Italian style, South American passion and English swagger. It can be an unpleasant and even deadly mixture, but it’s almost always interesting. Trust the Yanks to make things banal: the wannabe ultras at Los Angeles FC “support gay pride” rather than Mussolini.

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